Salvation by Grace: Person or Proposition?

13 July 2009

For something over a year now, I have been saying that I needed to update my response to the Free Grace Food Fight.  But what with one thing and another, the controversy hasn’t been hitting my immediate fields of ministry in a way that called for a written response, nor has anyone bothered to attack me lately in a way that I felt compelled a response.  Other matters were more pressing, so here we are, a year later, and I still haven’t written anything.

Which is not to say that the time has been wasted.  In the interim, the controversy has been the subject of numerous private conversations, and in the lull in public activity, God provided me with time for some much-needed reflection and growth.

I still have some things to say publicly, but I’m much better equipped to say them than I would have been a year ago.  Those things, alas, will not all get said in this post.  But I’m going to make a start.

Let’s start with this:  Salvation is not by any form of works, including theological study, correctness, or acumen.

We are saved by a person, and that person is Jesus Christ.  God requires of us that we believe in that person, as we see in John 9 when Jesus talks with the man born blind:

Jesus heard that they had expelled him, and meeting him, He said to him, “Do you believe in the Son of God?”

He answered, “Who is he, sir, that I may believe in Him?”

“You both have seen Him, and He is the one talking with you,” Jesus said.

“Lord, I believe!” he said, and worshiped Him.

I used to say that “believe in” always boils down to some sort of proposition about the person, a position I adopted from Gordon Clark. While Clark went to some lengths to demonstrate this idea, and clearly held it strongly, it always got him into trouble.  Having argued that saving faith is faith in a saving proposition, obviously he needed to identify that proposition, and he couldn’t.  In a chapter toward the end of Faith and Saving Faith, Clark admits — with, it seems, some embarrassment — that there appear to be multiple saving propositions in Scripture.

Some Free Grace folks have correctly observed that John’s Gospel is addressed to unbelievers — and that it is the only such book in the New Testament.  This narrows the search a little bit.  Although we would not be surprised to find the saving proposition in, say, Romans (a book addressed to believers), we really want to see how the saving proposition is put to an unbeliever, and in John, God presents Jesus to an unbelieving readership.  It’s an ideal place to look for a saving proposition.

Only problem is, it seems to vary there, too.  Jesus tells the woman at the well that He is the Christ (but doesn’t mention “Son of God”); He tells the man born blind that He is the Son of God (but doesn’t mention “Christ”).  He often mentions eternal life — but not always.  Taking away sins is mentioned sometimes — but not always.  There’s a raft of “believe in Me” or “believe in Him” statements — woefully unclear!  Clark would be no happier with the multiplicity of answers that arise from John than he was with the multiplicity of answers arising from Scripture as a whole.

I have come to believe that the entire proposition-hunting endeavor is fundamentally wrongheaded.  When Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” he missed the whole point.  Truth is not a ‘what,’ it’s a ‘who’: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”  And likewise for eternal life: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.”  To have eternal life is to have Jesus; to know the truth is to know Jesus, not simply a proposition.  The matter is irreducibly personal.

Don’t get me wrong.  Propositions are necessary in order to tell the story and introduce the person to Jesus.  But they’re tools to an end, not the thing itself.  The message is Jesus, the Living Word of God, and He can be introduced by a story, by propositions, but not reduced to a proposition.

Salvation is not a substance, a thing you can put in your pocket.  Salvation is living relationship with the Person Jesus Christ. Faith in the real Jesus, however defective in some of its propositional details, is saving faith. (We can see this with the disciples, who believed in Jesus, but doubted His death, and then His resurrection.)

On the other hand, faith in the correctness of one’s propositions, however accurate they might be, is a threadbare attempt to earn God’s favor through theological acumen, an attempt God will honor as much as He honors other salvation-by-works schemes: “Depart from Me, ye that practice lawlessness; I never knew you.”

We are meant to look through the propositions as through a window, and see the Person standing behind them. When we just look at the propositions — whichever propositions — we’re getting caught up in staring at the window glass itself, preoccupied with every bump and bubble and speck of dust.

To the extent that the big food fight is about which part of the window glass to stare at, there’s not much to pick from on any side.  And to the extent that anyone’s conduct shows hatred for his brothers and his neighbors — certainly not true of everyone, but there’s a lot of it going around — he is plainly not walking with Jesus, so why should anyone listen when he talks about Him?

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Skeletal Evangelism

5 July 2009

Having recently become acquainted with Duane Garner through his Church Music Through History series, I have been listening to some of the other things he’s done, most recently a couple of lectures from a series titled “The Christian Imagination: Creativity, Fiction & Poetry.” The following quote comes from the second lecture, starting at 41:55:

So, trying to do theology and to read the Bible, and to live without engaging the imagination — it leaves us without an image of the future, it leaves us with very little in the Bible that we can actually benefit from.  Take out the stories, take out the poetry, and what are you left with?  It’s difficult for me to relate to the sort of mindset that’s only content with the barest and weakest and most anemic expressions of faith : “If we could just boil this down to the essentials, then we’ve got it.”  Wouldn’t we much rather become a people who are enraptured with the stories and the songs that the Bible gives us, even if we don’t understand them all, even if there’s some mystery there, and then bust out with a creativity of spirit that says, “How can we celebrate this; how can we sing that; how can we recognize this; how can we mark that?”
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It’s the very nature of our five senses to pull us into whatever is there: scent, rhythm, texture, vision.  This is the way God’s word pulls us in.  It draws us in with its beauty to participate in it.  And so the mature Christian imagination is concerned with story, and poetry, and creativity.  We hear the stories, we know the stories, we see their beauty, and we see our own part in the story, and the continuation of the story.  The Christian imagination understands life as meaningful history, the structure of which is revealed in Jesus.

Indeed.  And nowhere is this observation more applicable than in evangelism.

We try to make evangelism easier, less intimidating, and we generally do this by boiling it down to seven key statements, or four laws, or three points, or a saving proposition, or whatever.  We want to be able to tell people that they can be confident they’ve “given someone the gospel” when they have said X — whatever X is.

We do this to equip our fellow believers, to build them up so that they can evangelize confidently, and that’s a commendable goal.  But the way we’re going about it has a heavy cost: we lose sight of what actually happens in evangelism.

In evangelism we introduce people to Someone we love.  Relaying a couple of key facts is, at best, only a decent start.

When I try to describe my wife to someone who’s never met her, I may search my memory for that one story or factoid that perfectly captures Kimberly’s quirky sense of humor, or her wit, or her boldness.  But once I’ve relayed that one thing, I don’t sit back and think to myself, “That’s it.  That’s all anyone needs to know.”  No single fact or story could possibly capture the richness or depth of the delightful woman that I married, and when I want someone to know Kimberly, to see her as I do, the stories and facts pour forth without effort.  I’m not concerned to tell them the least they need to know; I want them to know far more than that.

How much deeper and richer is Jesus?

Jesus promises us the life we were always meant to live: harmony with God forever as His image in the creation.  He is able to make that promise because He died for our sins and rose the third day, the firstfruits of the resurrection in which we will all one day partake.  And He does all this for us while we are His enemies. You wouldn’t want to try to convey what Jesus is like without that part of the story.

But there’s so much more.  He’s the kind of guy who tells homespun fables that make us see respectable, self-satisfied leaders as disobedient children, or murderous tenants, or inhospitable soil.  Aesop’s got nothing on Him.  When they ask Him what kind of holy teacher hangs out with hookers and drunks, He asks them what kind of doctor spends all his time with sick people.  When He walks into the temple and sees a house of worship turned into a continuing criminal enterprise, He calls it like He sees it — and starts flipping over tables to clean the place out. When the wedding party runs out of wine, He supplies more than a hundred gallons of the very best.  In His presence, the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the gospel preached to them — and God blesses those who do not shy away from all that Jesus is.

Jesus did not live a minimalist life; the Bible does not give us bare-bones accounts of it.    Why are we so desperate to know how much we can hold out on our unbelieving friends?